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A look into economic disparity among Asian Americans

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DECEMBER 07, 2022

There have been many occasions where the term “Asian American” did not feel like it served me appropriately. In middle school, my 91% on a final math exam was overlooked by my friends just because I was Asian. In high school, I dishearteningly witnessed some of my Asian friends leave me at school to attend private college admissions support services.

When I entered university, I encountered clearer examples of the disconnect between my personal upbringing and that of others. In one of my first interactions with an Asian American peer on campus, I was immediately dumbfounded that while shopping, they had bought whatever they desired without thinking twice. Each additional swipe of their card showed me one thing undoubtedly: there was economic disparity between Asian Americans. 

Despite this, there is the narrative that all Asian Americans are the successful minority race in the United States. I began to confront the reality of the Asian experience and put a word to my experience: the “model minority myth.”

In the late 1970’s, my father, along with waves of other boat refugees, fled Vietnam in hopes of finding a better life away from the war. He came to the United States and started off with a blue-collar job painting walls. Having less time to adjust and build generational wealth, my father ultimately struggled to achieve economic mobility in the United States. His experiences are similar to those of a majority of other Southeast Asian groups around the same time period: Laotians were also leaving to escape war, and Cambodian refugees were fleeing from a mass genocide. 

These different experiences directly translate to the Asian American experience today in the United States, as indicated by statistics. For example, around 35% to 40% of Laotian, Cambodian and Hmong populations do not finish high school, according to a 2006 American Community Survey. 

Moreover, according to the Pew Research Center, a much higher percentage of Indians and Malaysians in the United States have at least a bachelor’s degree compared to Hmong, Laotian, Cambodian, and Vietnamese populations in the United States. This same study shows that Japanese American and Chinese American households made, on average, around at least $12,000 more than Vietnamese American households annually. There is vast economic diversity among Asian Americans, and the overall American experience is quite different for each Asian subgroup. 

These gaps in the statistics can be explained by our country’s history. Many Asian Americans have arrived in the United States for different reasons, in different circumstances, and under different laws. For instance, Chinese immigrants arrived in America first during the 1850’s and first worked as railroad construction workers. After being exploited by Americans for many decades, these immigrants were able to find communities and build an economic footing earlier on. 

For Asian individuals like my father still assimilating to the American experience, their voices are disenfranchised by the success of a few. Because of our intersectional identities as Asian Americans, policies likely will not accurately target the specific needs of certain ethnic Asian groups. As a result, many inequities go unnoticed, and policy decisions conceal many of the struggles that Asian Americans face. 

That is why there needs to be a collective and intentional effort to implement data disaggregation. Data disaggregation is immensely helpful in understanding the individual experiences of the very broad category of Asian American. An example that illustrates this point is that Hmong Asian Americans are more likely than the average American to be unemployed and to drop out of college. However, this significant data point is lost when it is labeled under the category of Asian Pacific American, or AAPI, and more examples of this are seen in various local, state and national governments and organizations. Therefore, data collection should be more specific in its categorization of Asian individuals to make it easier to meaningfully enact changes within policy where it is needed and accurately address issues regarding affected populations. 

As of press time, less than 0.5% of foundation grantmaking goes to AAPI communities, showing that the image of Asian success from a few has detrimentally affected the many. As the fastest growing minority group in the United States, the AAPI category compresses the economic realities of each group — it misleads with a monolithic image of Asian success. 

But there is hope. Our communities must do their part to understand the complex breakdown of the Asian demographic and understand the history behind the differences in outcomes seen today with Asian Americans. With understanding and an open mind, we can all come together to celebrate our shared cultures while also addressing the existing barriers that structurally construct these differences.

Although the term Asian can seem so ambiguous given the enormous demographic it is supposed to represent, the term means more than just an ethnic label or a racial category. For me, it symbolizes the struggles that Asian Americans have faced together through migration, war and political instability. Solidarity among Asian Americans means showing a dedication to work together, through our differences, to achieve greater equity. Only then can positive change happen. 

Dan Truong is a junior at UC Berkeley studying economics with a minor in public policy. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter.

DECEMBER 07, 2022